Cape Breton campgrounds facing a very different season this year
'I’m just going on a wing and a prayer,' campground owner says
Despite the creation of an Atlantic bubble, there are far fewer happy campers in Cape Breton.
That's a problem, especially for campgrounds that rely on visitors from outside of Atlantic Canada.
John Brennick and his family own and operate the Arm of Gold Campground and Trailer Park in Little Bras d'Or. Brennick's family has owned the campground since 1975.
Most summers, his 135 sites are full of campers from Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and the United States. Some days, he has less than a dozen Nova Scotians renting those sites.
"I'm just going on a wing and a prayer because nobody outside of the Maritimes is looking to come here and the Americans can't get over the border so I'm in limbo," said Brennick.
The campground rents to transient or overnight campers, meaning they only stay a few days. Arm of Gold is only a few minutes drive from the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal and relies heavily on people using the service. With Marine Atlantic limiting capacity, Brennick is seeing a drop in customers.
Arm of Gold isn't the only campground in Cape Breton dealing with both a change in the demographics of their customers and drop in the amount of campers. But some campgrounds and RV parks have been fortunate to have some loyal regular customers.
Shane Thompson owns Adventures East Campground and Cottages in Baddeck. His campground has some seasonal renters, so campers rent a spot for the entire summer. Most of those customers are from the nearby Sydney area.
"The [campgrounds] that have the seasonal campers are all pretty much in the same boat," said Thompson. "We're losing but we're doing better than some of the campgrounds that are basically strictly overnighters.… I can't imagine what they're going through."
That doesn't mean business hasn't been difficult in light of the pandemic. Thompson's overnight rentals have plummeted and as a result the campground isn't employing as many people as they normally would, or offering as many services.
All of the campground owners who spoke to CBC said they had fewer staff members. Those that remain have new responsibilities surrounding cleanliness and making sure campers are following the rules.
Around 99 per cent of Thompson's overnight campers right now are Nova Scotian, which he appreciates. But he said every campground is trying to draw from the same tourist base, which is making the situation difficult.
A campground just across the highway from Thompson is seeing a jump in local visitors, at least some of the time.
The Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground is getting nearly the same amount of traffic they normally get on the weekends and most of them are from Nova Scotia. On weekdays, though, the campground has seen a 60 to 70 per cent decline in bookings.
Owner Daniel Schlemmer said Maritimers seem to be buying into the idea of shopping local.
"I know that our campground store is doing very well compared to last year's, we go through the same amount of merchandise and groceries even though we are very less busy so it seems like people are trying to support our store," said Schlemmer.
Schlemmer said one of his concerns is just keeping up to date with health and safety protocols. He expressed some disappointment that campgrounds were not alerted by the province before the announcement was made that they could open.
"[The province] is doing a great job keeping the numbers down but in informing us in what to do and not to do, I think there was a pretty big lack of communications," said Schlemmer.
He said he realized he was allowed to open his campground because would-be campers started calling him. Schlemmer is hoping to see better communication with businesses as restrictions loosen.
A more subdued experience
Kluskap Ridge RV and Campground in Englishtown is also being buoyed by their seasonal customers. Darrell Bernard and his wife have been running the campground for four years.
Most of their seasonal campers at the campground are elderly. That led Bernard to cancel their regular events. The campground usually offers programming around Mi'kmaw culture and heritage as well as activities like Christmas in July, karaoke, and musical events. They also have a no-visitor policy.
"This is a tough season, I know we're lucky we were able to open at all," said Bernard.
Looking to the future
Bernard thinks camping is going to pick up in popularity because it's a safe activity to do during the pandemic, but he's still worried for the tourism industry and the economy as a whole.
"We're either going to have to tighten our belts and get used to a new way of life or we're going to have to get used to COVID being part of who we are," he said.
As for Brennick, he's accessing some of the federal support for businesses including the $40,000 line of credit. However, he'd like to see some direct help for the tourism season from the provincial government. Brennick believes that if small businesses begin to shut down and there are fewer things for tourists to do, the situation will spiral out of control.
"It will be interesting to see what the fall brings, I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of businesses that won't be around next year and that's sad."
For now, he's hoping the pandemic gets under control so his usual customers can travel again.